Jessup is a high-school senior in upstate New York who has bucked the odds – single mom, no money, trailer-park home – to earn himself a potential Ivy League football scholarship and all that implies. First, he has to get through the end of the football season, which just happens to coincide with his white-supremacist stepfather’s release from prison, where he was serving time along with Jessup’s older brother for the manslaughter deaths of two Black college students. Jessup just wants to keep his head down and his grades up, but fate, in the form of America’s toxic legacy of race relations, has other plans.
Alexi Zentner’s third novel (not counting the trio of horror novels written under the pseudonym Ezekiel Boone) could have easily launched into a “Living in the Trump Era” work of social realism and progressive self-congratulation, but luckily for readers the author avoids this easy way out. Copperhead presents Jessup as a believably confused teenager torn between his desire to succeed in a community of strangers who too often look down on him because of his class and the loyalty he feels he owes to his extended family, the only source of stability and belonging he’s ever known.
That his family is deeply enmeshed in the white power movement is not lost on Jessup; he simply has no idea how to reconcile that contradiction. When Jessup is forced into a violent racial confrontation at a party after the Friday night game, his coping strategies are no match for the political and media firestorm that descend upon him and his family.
Zentner uses this clash of competing ideologies to fearlessly examine another of America’s seemingly unbridgeable divides: between the country’s predominately rural white underclass and the left-liberal political, academic, and media elites that conservative leaders so nimbly pit them against. The writing and characterization is sharp throughout.
The only disappointment is the novel’s ending, which, while commendable in its effort to provide a bleak story with a dose of moral uplift, feels like the literary equivalent of playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” over a film’s closing montage.